Camerimage 2021

Karina Silva, discusses her work on Amber Sealey’s "No Man of God"

Sympathy for the Devil

[ English ] [ français ]

“No Man of God” is a behind-closed-doors look into a cell where an FBI agent is interrogating a serial killer. It is an adaptation of authentic recordings made by Bill Hagmaier during his interviews with Ted Bundy. Director Amer Sealey and her DoP Karina Silva implemented directorial and cinematographic strategies to portray these sequences, which are all alike on paper, in order to impart rhythm to the film. “No Man of God” is in competition this year at Torun in the “Cinematographers’ Debuts Competition”. (FR)

Between 1984 and 1989, the meetings between FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier and serial killer Ted Bundy inside of an interrogation room.

Luke Kirby (Ted Bundy) and Elijah Wood (Bill Hagmaier) - Photogramme
Luke Kirby (Ted Bundy) and Elijah Wood (Bill Hagmaier)

What were the origins of this project?

Karina Silva : I wasn’t alone on this project. Truth be told, another cinematographer was supposed to make this film in March 2020, but Covid changed things up and the film was delayed. That’s when I was contacted, and we had to begin preparation virtually. When I finally asked Amber, the director, why she’d chosen me, she answered that it was because I had promised to work harder than anyone else on this film!
Virtual preparation lasted 3 weeks, on Zoom. It was really not easy to work in such conditions. We were able to at least do some in-person location scouting, and then production began on 20 days of shooting in October 2020.

What attracted you to the subject of this film?

KR : I loved the screenplay. What stood out to me the first time I read it were the characters and, in particular, Ted Bundy, the serial killer. He is all but the archetype of what one might expect from such a monster. He was very intelligent and had a university education. He was also very seductive and grew up in an affluent family. Yet, the film makes nearly no mention of the murders he committed, unlike many other films about serial killers, where they are often the key to the suspense or the plot. In No Man of God, everything is from the FBI agent’s point of view, and it’s the strange relationship he gradually forms with him that is at the centre of the film. Bill Hagmaier, the real agent, was a consultant on our film, and we greatly profited from his memories, and he even let us listen to the recordings he’d made and kept from the time. He was a great inspiration for our staging.

Any images in mind?

KR : Amongst the films I immediately thought of, there is David Fincher’s Zodiac. This is another period piece that is about hunting down a serial killer. The colour palette and the prison set were great inspirations for me. Our set designer, Michael Fitzgerald, and I, reconstructed the prison set and the cell inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Pomona, near Los Angeles. There was a lot to work with already on location, because it had kept its 1980s atmosphere. The work mainly bore on the colour pallet, in order to make it look more like a prison than a hospital. We spent nearly 12 days shooting in that cell. Because it was stuffy in there, the shooting script allowed us to break up the routine a bit and give us some breathing room by interposing scenes shot outdoors.

What was the main artistic intention?

KR : Our intention was to never glorify the killer. Our protagonist was Bill Hagmaier, and we chose to shed light on him, instead of on Bundy. Of course, a lot of serial killer films take the opposite approach in order to make those characters even more unusual, but that wasn’t our thing. That’s why, from the opening scene, we chose to film him in a slightly unusual way, by deliberately placing him in the background. Gradually, throughout those scenes in the cell, a trusting relationship begins to grow between the two men, and that’s when we realized that Bundy was really a multifaceted character. It was in order to enhance that part of the story that I began to darken the cell, in order to visually convey that descent into the shadows. But, that dosing had to be very progressive, in order for the viewer not to see it, but to feel it all the same… You know, shooting 80% of a film in a windowless room forces you to come up with all possible ideas you might be able to implement on screen.

Karina Silva
Karina Silva

What about the lenses?

KR : Yes, we also changed in terms of lenses. Everything was shot with a fixed lens, with a Cooke S4 series and two Arri Alexa Mini cameras. The first interviews were shot with wide angle lenses, close to the actors. Then, we lengthened the focal lengths and stood further away from the actors, keeping the same field size. Then, in their last interview in the gymnasium, we shot with a telephoto lens with even tighter fields.

Frame picture

In terms of lighting, I set up a large light box just above the table, which was my main source. By raising and lowering a black skirt around the source, I was able to simply control the contrast between the start of the film, where the walls seem lighter, and the remainder of the interviews in which the contrast begins to intensify. This setup was inspired by the actual setup of interrogation rooms, which are often lit by a naked bulb on the ceiling. For the close up shots, I was careful to never enhance Luke Kirby (Bundy), while the same shots on Elijah Wood (Hagmaier) always gave him a bit of shine in the eye.

Frame picture

There is a unique sequence in the film, when the lawyer takes things in hand and the interrogations are no longer one-on-one.

KR : That sequence was inspired by the portraits that Americans used to love in the 1980s. It was a very popular style of image that was available in photography studios all over the country. The setup was always the same, and the backdrop was always lit the same way. I wanted to recreate the same ambiance, with a very symmetrical composition, a bit Wes Anderson style. This is also a particular moment in the film, where there is a brief bit of levity. Amber and I thought it was the right moment to attempt something like that.
The standoff of three characters with a single character also was a big change from the shot-reverse-shot style between the two men when they were alone. I think this participates in enhancing the game Bundy was playing, as though it were a stage play.

Frame picture

Let’s also discuss the final confession in the gymnasium.

KR : Amber heavily insisted on this location and fought to get it. I really like that it’s the brightest and most open moment in the entire film. With the large windows and the beige tones, and even the sunlight flooding the space. Yet, it’s by far the darkest and most terrible scene for the protagonist, since it’s the moment when the serial killer confesses to him without any filter. It was also a way of taking the viewer unawares, by placing the camera in the exact opposite of what had been done on the rest of the film. As for the camera, as I said earlier, that scene was shot between 135 and 150 mm.

Frame picture

I also took care to almost always cut off a part of Bundy’s body or face, making him come in and out of the field as he performed the scene. Hagmaier, meanwhile, was shot in a more conventional way, and the camera is literally with him as he faces this tortured confession.

(Interview by François Reumont, for the AFC – Translated from French)